Oppression within oppression: a response to “A Question of Privilege”

'Conversation' by Erik Ruin

A response to an article called A Question of Privilege, which looks at the intersection of class struggle, feminism, and power divisions withing the working class.

Submitted by Jared on November 27, 2011

This is a response to an article called "A Question of Privilege" that was posted on the newly formed New Zealand libcomaotearoa list, which you can find here. I am disturbed by many of the ideas conveyed in this article, because they clearly represent a trend in anarchist class struggle that disregards an analysis of power as it pertains to relationships within the working class. I have been reluctant to respond to the arguments in "A Question of Privilege", because it feels like going back-to-basics. Surely most anarchists understand that an analysis of power must have a prominent place in the way we organise toward revolution. Yet hostility to analyses of power that are not purely class-based (i.e. feminist and decolonial theories) appears to be brewing in libertarian class struggle circles, which is really worrying to me. While I do not see class struggle as the only site of resistance, it is certainly essential if we are to create social movements that will really change things. And while I do not want to squeeze all other theories against oppression into a (still narrow) class struggle framework, I do want class struggle movements to be a place where those of us marginalised within the working class (by gender, race and/or whatever else) can shape theory, strategy and practice. For this to happen, conversations about feminism, decolonisation and other struggles against oppression must be in dialogue with class struggle discourse. In this response I focus on how many of the ideas conveyed in "A Question of Privilege" devalue the role of feminist theory in shaping anarchist class struggle. (Note: I use the word 'power' interchangeably with 'privilege': I like 'power' better because it feels less fixed).

"A Question of Privilege" represents the view that an analysis of power has no relevance to class struggle. At its most basic level, an analysis of power requires the understanding that some people have access to more power than others in this society, and that those with more can benefit from the oppression of those with less. Therefore, it is up to those oppressed or exploited and their allies to get organised and overthrow the hierarchy, be it that created by capitalism, patriarchy, colonisation or anything else. To struggle together even when we are affected by divergent oppressions, we need to be able to give up power-over: a ruling class person would have to give up their access to the means of production in order to struggle alongside workers. Not all power-over is as simple as that, but being an ally is about giving up power-over to the extent that it is possible. I cannot give up my white skin, and the fact that this makes me less likely to be arrested for the same crime as other Māori who are brown. Yet being prepared to investigate how this place of relative power and how it informs my viewpoint is fundamental to me being able to stand in solidarity with other Māori in the struggle against colonialism and racism. To me, this analysis of power is fundamental to anarchist praxis. However, in "A Question of Privilege" Anonymous argues that the ruling class is the only group that can be said to be privileged, claiming that we cannot give up power (such as masculine privilege) when it is tied up with capitalism. I agree that most oppression (i.e. patriarchal oppression) is inextricable with capital, and that approaches to power that do not recognise this are unable to help build a movement against capitalism. However, does that mean that we should not try to understand the historical and present-day struggles of people oppressed by patriarchy? By never indicating that feminism or any other analysis of oppression has a place in informing the way we organise against capital, Anonymous disregards the relevance of these discourses to the struggles of working class people. I disagree vehemently with the notion that an analysis of power has no place in understanding relationships within the working class, indeed, oppression and privilege clearly impact on our capacity to organise together. For me, the willingness to interrogate my position of powerin relation to others, or their power in relation to is an essential part of forming solidarity with folks who are also exploited by class. For that reason and many others, feminism and other discourses that further the interests of those marginalised by any oppressive structure should have an important place in informing class struggle praxis.

For me, the most noticeable thing about "A Question of Privilege" is that it uses language that minimises the impact of patriarchy, white supremacy and other systems of oppression that are not purely about class. For instance, Anonymous asserts that: "'privileges' granted by the ruling order to people in certain social categories among the exploited actually amount to nothing more than a lessening of the intensity of exploitation and oppression experienced by these people relative to others". It is a pity the writers felt the need to belittle the experience of oppression within oppression, for the point that there is commonality across the working class in terms of how we are exploited would have stood perfectly well on its own. Unless of course, Anonymous intends to minimise the experiences of those of us marginalised within the working class, and thereby infer that we should practice class struggle without reference to any other form of oppression. Anonymous also dismisses the critical response to marginalisation, characterising the understanding that some people within the working class have more privilege than others as "useless from an anarchist and revolutionary perspective". Here, the word 'useless' implies a non-negotiable disregard for an analysis of power other than that between ruling and working class. But if there is no place for other analyses of power, then where is the place of feminism, of decolonisation, or any other discourse that furthers the interests of people oppressed in multiple ways?

Because oppression is inextricable from capitalism, Anonymous draws the conclusion that we should not try to ameliorate it, but rather seek to overthrow capital. I agree that freedom from patriarchy cannot be realised so long as there is capitalism, and I have certainly experienced anarchist settings where people act as if it were, even if they theoretically admit that it is not. Here, the struggle against sexism is often figured as the effort to purge it from our lives and ourselves, rather than a constant challenge to power-over and the will to power. However, just because we cannot get rid of sexism without overthrowing capitalism, does that mean that we should not challenge the exercise of power-over? For instance, I think it is appropriate to exclude known violent abusers from anarchist organisations. I also think that it is important to acknowledge that this is only a line in the sand. Many of us go home to families, have friends, or work with people for whom violence is the norm and yet we are not prepared to cut ties. This contradiction is simply a reality of living under patriarchy and trying to struggle against it at the same time. For me, the political imperative to purge sexism has been crazy-making and isolating. Yet an acceptance of sexist behavior would be to comply with the subordination of women or anyone else on the receiving end of it. To me, this conundrum represents a tension that we need to negotiate constantly, rather than an either/or situation.

Anonymous draws attention to the way the ruling class uses oppression within the working class to divide us, but fails to acknowledge the room we do have to limit our use of power. Anonymous contends that privilege is conferred by the ruling class as a means to focus our antagonism on each other rather than them: "[privileges] are intended to convince these people that they have more in common with their exploiters than with those not granted the same “privileges” and to convince the others that their real enemy is not the ruling class, but rather those granted a less intense level of exploitation". I agree that the Ruling Class does indeed benefit from our dividedness, and that bourgeois ideology encourages the oppressed to identify with the ruling class rather than each other. However, Anonymous neglects the fact that those with relative power can extract material gains at the expense of those with less. Indeed, I strongly disagree with Anonymous's argument that relative privilege is a "phantom", i.e. has no material basis, and their inference that letting go of power-over has no place in class struggle. Anonymous contends that the fact women are more likely to experience sexual harassment amounts to an easing of the conditions of exploitation for men. Writing as though sexual harassment were created by the ruling class to divide us, Anonymous fails to acknowledge the agency of the working class men who sexually harass women, and the complicity of those who support them. If sexism is challenged and those challenged refuse to engage, it is they, not the challengers who are 'dividing the working class'.

If the writers of "A Question of Privilege" are trying to say that certain discourses around privilege do not further class struggle, I can agree with that. Indeed, I feel it is crucial to maintain a critical culture that constantly re-evaluates how we approach oppression. From what I have seen, anarchist praxis that insists on perfect ideological understanding as a prerequisite to collective organisation does not often extend beyond friendship groups. While I lived in Wellington (2004-2007) much of our focus as anarchist-feminists went into dealing with sexism within that anarchist scene. This is no mean feat, and I think an significant growth in consciousness around sexism occurred within that scene through the efforts and persistence of feminists and pro-feminists. However, there was also an collective unwillingness to work with anyone (of whatever gender) who did not already have a certain type of consciousness about oppression, or was not quick to learn. From that unwillingness flowed a praxis that was somewhat severed from the material conditions of our lives. We attended and organised protests, formed the radical wing of reformist campaigns and occasionally 'fucked shit up'. Yet none of these political strategies required us to go out of our comfort zones and work with others with similar material interests, but did not necessarily share our ideology. This approach to politics culminated in a insular and unfocused anarchist scene that could not help build a diverse movement against capital or patriarchy. However, I do not blame a militant stance on sexist oppression for this, but rather ideological puritanism coupled with the notion that the world can be changed by a small group of committed individuals fucking shit up.

If we are to create theory that addresses the reality of working class women, we need an analysis of power and a dedication to critical exchange. Sexism in all its forms (internalised, implicit, or openly acted out), attacks women's power and therefore has a direct impact on our ability to organise politically or have a voice in how theory is developed. On an email list where the emphasis is on intellectual exchange, an analysis of power can help ensure that marginalised voices are heard and theory that addresses our concerns can be created. A willingness to dialogue about feminism and class struggle requires first of all an acknowledgement that what feminists have to offer is important. This does not necessitate that anyone secede to whatever feminists think, but rather a dedication to constructive conversation. This works best when we can interrogate our positions of power or bias whilst still valuing our own critical perspective (paradoxical, I know!). Passivity and guilt are common responses to being asked to evaluate ones use of power, yet they are not helpful. Rather than deciding from an informed perspective what sexist practices they will relinquish, guilt ridden men often revert to 'good little boy' mode, and sullenly do whatever feminists tell them to do. Yet men giving up responsibility for themselves does not constitute feminist practice. Personally, I would prefer to talk with mature people who can limit their use of power without having to negate themselves.

Whereas the refusal to acknowledge power differences is complicit in the privileging of some peoples interests over another, a willingness to challenge power-over is a call to empower all. The ideas purveyed in "A Question of Privilege" are disturbing because they disregard the importance of feminism and other struggles against power-over by dismissing an analysis of power. Yet an analysis of power is essential to non-hierarchical class struggle because it provides us with understanding and strategies that enable us to stand in solidarity, not in the sense of having entirely eliminated oppression, but rather in a dialectical sense of ongoing confrontation, engagement, and hopefully synthesis. For this to happen, there needs to be a dialogue between feminist and class struggle discourses, and attention paid to the areas where they consciously cross over, from theorists like Mariarosa Dalla Costa, to us everyday people who happen to be passionate about both.

Hana Plant
Beyond Resistance